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:: 9

From beyond the colourful, glossy backdrop of Pixar and Dreamworks animation emerges something with a darker, meaner edge: Shane Acker’s 9 and its post-apocalyptic, rag-doll fight for survival in a world plundered by soulless machines. Only an odd assortment of these tattered creations, each imparted with a tenuous link to their creator - an exiled scientist - can restore a vestige of humanity to the sunless void that was once our land of plenty.

We first glimpse this ravaged world through the eyes of the most recent and final creation, ‘9’ (voiced by Elijah Wood), an innocent doe-eyed wanderer whose curiosity mirrors our own. Unable to produce vocal responses at first, he encounters the wise and kindly ‘2’ (Martin Landau), who is able to manipulate 9’s internal bearings to produce speech.

Soon ‘9’ comes to understand they are not alone, with a small fleet of numerical descendents having emerged from the crucible of the scientist’s imagination before him. All are variations, though slightly improved with time, including the hardened, tyrannical ‘1’ (Christopher Plummer), the submissive, one-eyed ‘5’ (John C. Reilly), the loopy, possibly genius outcast, ‘6’ (Crispin Glover) and the fearless ‘7’ (Jennifer Connelly) who first emerges as a savior in the heat of battle.

Naturally, amongst this diverse ragtag group, philosophical differences have created allegiances to various models of survival methodology; the cruel ‘1’ is a sadistic dictator who lords his elderly status over all but cowers in fear at times of confrontation with a mechanical predator known as The Beast. This adversary proves to be insignificant, however, in comparison to what’s unleashed when the naive ‘9’ impulsively attaches a talisman to the mainframe of another huge chunk of machinery. This fateful act awakens the consciousness of a gigantic contraption that becomes their ultimate nemesis, the one they must fight to the death to survive and preserve a last ounce of human influence.

The gloomy palette adopted by Acker and his animators swamps this alternate world, creating a striking, mesmerising contrast to our own; it makes for a vivid depiction of a planet run into the ground, swallowed and overrun by greed and progress exceeding its limitations. The film has an undeniable stamp of uniqueness that instantly defines it as adult animation. Beneath the intricate construct of this dystopian world, a furious action movie is bursting to get out; Acker doesn’t allow his audiences a chance to nod off, beefing up confrontations with The Beast and its terrifying, relentless ‘Father’ with unrestrained glee.

The film seems close to ending at one point, but it’s merely a false dawn and a frenetic post-script ramps up the action for a final set-piece; when all finally comes to rest, Acker discloses a weird, slightly incongruous theological streak in the true purpose of the dolls and the fate awaiting those who fail to see the quest through to its end. His voice cast is flawless, with each doll given rudimentary but distinctive personalities; consequently they possess a harmonious balance of sympathetic and negative qualities.

‘9’ began its life as a short film which earned Acker a student Academy Award in 2004; at feature length, it proves an elusive creation, but compelling nonetheless, and an antidote of sorts for the fail-safe formula of the big animated studios. Though likely to be seen by a far more limited audience, it’s filled to the brim with creative flair and unadulterated imaginative power; visually it makes for a startling spectacle, with a freshness that sets it apart from the pack. It’s no surprise to see Tim Burton gravitating towards this project to act as producer; its darkest properties mirror some of the more potent sensibilities expressed in his own work.